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Driving in London : What You Need To Know

Driving in London : What You Need To Know
London has many public transportation options, and most tourists do not drive in the city. Not only is there limited parking and lots of congestion like in any other city, but in London, you also have to contend with left-side driving, which isn’t always easy. Should you chose to drive in London here’s what you need to know about the documents required, congestion issues, basic rules of the road, and of course, how to find parking.

Driving Requirements

There are several legal requirements in place in order to get behind the wheel in London—abide by them or risk getting ticketed.

Checklist for Driving in London:

Driving License: You must have a valid driving license in order to drive in the UK and non-UK driving licenses are acceptable for up to 12 months from when you first entered the UK.

Passport: Almost all car rental companies require a passport or some form of official photographic ID to rent a car. Some companies also ask to see proof of address in the UK (hotel confirmation) and travel documents (i.e. airline tickets confirming your UK departure date).

Insurance: Law in the UK requires a valid motor vehicle insurance certificate. If you’re renting, check that all drivers are properly insured under this agreement and that you have all the necessary paperwork.

International Driving Permit: An International Driving Permit (IDP) is not officially required for US-license holders driving in the UK, though some car rental companies do require it, as such it’s recommended.

Rules of the Road

Driving in London isn’t easy. If possible, visually familiarize yourself with the road signs ahead of time. You can find images of many of them here, and this roundup covers the key rules:

  • Left-side driving: Drive on the left side of the road at all times. You may want to consider getting a vehicle with an automatic transmission to make the transition a bit easier.
  • Seatbelts: Safety belts must be worn at all times.
  • Mobile Phone: Like in the US, using a mobile phone while driving is illegal in all of the UK (except in emergency situations when dialing 112 or 999).
  • Speed Limits: Speed limits are listed in kilometers (1 mile = 1.61 kilometers). On some roads, there are speed cameras in order to enforce speed limits.
  • BAC: The blood alcohol content limit is the same as in the US (0.08%).
  • Pedestrian crossings: London is very busy, so watch out for pedestrians, cyclists, and motorcyclists. Yield to pedestrians at the marked zebra crossings (white stripes painted on the road, further marked by striped poles topped with round, flashing yellow lights). Apart from at zebra crossings, cars rarely slow down to let pedestrians cross the street, which is very dangerous, as many tourists step out onto the street looking in the wrong direction of traffic.
  • Bike lanes: Keep an eye out for bike lanes and cyclists. Always look before opening your car door.
  • Bus lanes: Bus lanes are indicated by a thick white line painted on the road. During certain hours, they are reserved for buses, licensed London taxis, motorcycles, and bikes. From Monday to Sunday, from 7 p.m. until to 7 a.m. any vehicle can use the lane.
  • Yellow box junctions: Yellow box junctions are indicated by crisscross yellow lines painted on the road. They are usually found at four-road intersections or in front of fire stations and ambulance stations. Drivers cannot “block the box” and stop within the yellow box junction, as they’re designed to allow through-traffic to avoid traffic jams and/or make way for emergency vehicles. Penalty Charge Notices (PCN) will be issued to any drivers who do not observe the rules.
  • Congestion charges: If you’re driving in central London during peak hours during the week (7 a.m.-6 p.m., Monday to Friday), you’re required to prepay a daily Congestion Charge of £11.50 per day. This can be paid online, by auto pay, or by telephone, and if you don’t pay, you will be fined. The congestion zones are marked with a white sign displaying the letter “C” in a red circle. You can read more about it here.
  • Motorways: On motorways, there is no fast lane and the left lane should only be used to overtake another vehicle.
  • Roundabouts: Traffic circles or roundabouts are very common: Traffic flows clockwise; yield to traffic approaching from your right; and use your indicators to signal left at your exit.
  • Fuel: Gas is called petrol in London, and you’ll also find diesel at fuel stations. The pumps are usually green for petrol (gasoline) and black for diesel.
  • In case of an emergency: call 112 or 999 for the emergency services (police, fire, and ambulance). If you’re a part of a road-traffic accident where someone is injured or there’s damage to a vehicle or property, you’re required to stop.
  • Tolls: There is only one tollgate in London, which in Dulwich, located on a private section of College Road. All cars have to pay the £1.20 toll either by cash or card. Find out more here.
  • Traffic: Avoid driving in London during rush hour, which runs from 6-10 a.m. in the mornings and 4-6:30 p.m. in the evenings.
  • For more information on London’s traffic laws and regulations, see the official Highway Code.

Parking in London

Street parking in London can be very difficult to find. Always carefully check street signs in order to avoid fees, as there may be time limits or residence permit required. Often, streets have parking restrictions in place between 8:30 a.m. and 6:30 p.m., Monday to Saturday. Many streets have a pay and display system, where you buy a ticket from a nearby machine and display it in your car to avoid getting a parking ticket.

Also, make sure you check for yellow and red lines along the curb, which basically mean no parking. Yellow lines control waiting. Red lines essentially mean no stopping at any time and you may see signs designating these “red routes.” You can read more about them here. Failure to follow these rules may result in a Penalty Charge Notice (PCN).

To avoid street parking, try a designated parking lot instead. Qpark has car parks on the edge of the congestion zones including in Park Lane/Marble Arch; Queensway; Knightsbridge; Pimlico; St. John’s Wood; Tower Bridge; and Church Street. They have 18 total parking lots and costs vary by time of day and location.

Traffic in London

Like any major city, traffic is an issue in London. You can see a month-by-month breakdown of planned works here, as they’re expected to have an impact on transport including driving. It’s always a good idea to have an alternative route in mind should your route be diverted without notice. Always allow for extra time.

The TfL (Transport for London) also posts live status updates, which include road closures and delays. You can also check expected road statuses for the weekend and other future dates. Traffic in London is exceptionally bad around holidays (i.e. before Christmas) and bank holidays (official holidays when most businesses are closed).  

Should You Rent A Car In London?

Barring special circumstances (like mobility issues), renting a car in London is largely not suggested. There’s plenty of public transportation including the Underground, the Overground (above-ground train lines), and buses, as well as taxis and ride-sharing apps. However, London is very widespread, and as you move away from the traffic-packed city center, public transportations connections get further apart and a car may end up being a decent option. Also, as the UK rail network is expensive outside of London and trains don’t always go where you desire, some tourists end up renting a car in London in order to travel further afield into the countryside.